In the middle of all the negative publicity around the Section 201 trade case, we at Solar Power World have enjoyed getting to know the U.S. solar panel manufacturers that haven’t been grabbing headlines. This month we reached out to PureSolar, a small-scale panel manufacturer in Washington. PureSolar president and CEO Rich Phillips said the company has found a niche with high-efficiency smart modules and is waiting to see how the potential tariff implementation plays out before planning for expansion.
Solar Power World: What is PureSolar’s history?
Phillips: In 2008, I was a restaurant owner looking for a way to make my businesses more ecofriendly. I decided to get as close to net zero energy as possible, using a combination of an artesian well under the kitchen for geothermal, scrubbing heat from the kitchen equipment and adding as much PV as possible. I met with local energy experts to discuss the possibilities and found that Washington State had recently created a strong incentive program to support in-state PV manufacturing. Out of those first few meetings, the seeds were planted in my mind that PV manufacturing was possible in Washington.
After putting together a group of local investors for the capex and build-out of the current facility, I attracted a number of top-notch executives, including Dean Van Vleet as director of engineering. Van Vleet has been in the inverter and module manufacturing industry since the early days of Washington’s solar industry, more than 20 years ago. Having been part of two previous PV module manufacturing start-ups, Van Vleet is an appreciable asset to the new company. Rounding out the executive team are Dr. Katherine Hansen (COO) with a background in chemical engineering, and Darin Johnson (CFO), former CFO of Commencement Bank.
SPW: Where is your manufacturing location, and what is your capacity? Any plans for expansion?
Phillips: PureSolar is located in the Olympia, Washington area, minutes off of I-5, and less than an hour from three major ports. The factory’s first-year capacity is 5 to 10 MW of premium, glass-glass modules, and the current location is expected to support up to 30 MW of production. PureSolar is exploring additional sites for a new facility in order to meet the growing demand for its products. The outcome of the Section 201 case will influence plans significantly, and the ultimate effect the remedy may have on the company remains unclear.
SPW: Who are your customers?
Phillips: PureSolar’s current customers are mostly residential and commercial installs where the client wants a great looking, high-performance product. However, we are increasingly working on projects to place our new products in building-integrated installations, such as covered walkways, parking structures and outdoor living spaces.
SPW: Why start another panel manufacturing business in the Pacific Northwest?
Phillips: First and foremost, for PureSolar, the Pacific Northwest is home. PureSolar’s ownership and management are all Washington natives with deep ties to renewable energy, commercial construction and real estate development. Secondly, Washington State has tax advantages for utilities that participate in a renewable energy incentive that allow them to pay up to 0.16/kWh to PV system owners, with an added 0.05/kWh for modules that are manufactured in Washington. By bringing a new product to Washington, we are fostering a competitive market space that will significantly serve to improve the local PV industry.
SPW: What type of modules does PureSolar have available to the U.S. market today?
Phillips: Our flagship product is a glass-glass, 60-cell module incorporating high-efficiency monocrystalline cells and polyolefin (POE) encapsulant. Our panels are Tigo TS4 smart-module ready, allowing us to readily offer a range of smart options, and are a drop in replacement for many commodity spec 60-cell modules. It’s also worth noting that we are certified with TUV to both UL 1703 as well as IEC 61215 and 61730 standards.
SPW: What differentiates you from the crowd? Was only offering smart modules a conscious decision?
Phillips: Offering premium products that are tested to IEC performance standards, along with Tigo’s interchangeable TS4 platform, enables PureSolar to be in every market where durability and aesthetics are foremost in customer’s minds. PureSolar is proud to have been the first U.S. manufacturer to offer Tigo’s TS4, which allows them to offer everything from diode-only j-boxes, up to on-board optimization and longer string lengths.
SPW: How is the potential tariff implementation affecting your ramp-up?
Phillips: The PureSolar team has been closely following the Section 201 case and pending decisions. Since the vast majority of cells are manufactured overseas, including those in our panels, any tariffs on cells may negatively affect our ability to compete, as well as our plans for ramp-up and expansion. PureSolar favors local, regional and federal support for domestically made solar products but specifically opposes limitations on international trade, as such measures will be damaging to the PV supply chain and the industry as a whole.
SPW: What can the U.S. market expect from PureSolar for the rest of 2017 and the future?
Phillips: PureSolar has managed growth well and is poised to adapt to market changes after Section 201 is finalized. We are currently in discussions with a number of possible entities that are looking to partner with established PV manufacturers in order to scale up production significantly. In the meantime, PureSolar is preparing to qualify a bifacial module before the end of the year, with frameless and 72-cell products in the queue, and reliability and bankability testing pending.